Against the Norm: History of Art and Counterculture

Faith Ringgold

As challenging the status quo took the world by storm, counterculture shifted away from canvases and posters and onto groundbreaking fashion styles and music records that still grace our department stores and record shops today. Taking part in counterculture means deviating from social norms and challenging the consensus of morality. While many facets of counterculture flourish today without as much as a bat of an eye, this was not always the case, especially for the visual and performing arts. Bold stances on war, civil rights, and environmentalism were matched with bright colors and curvy, abstract shapes and fonts. The opposition to these movements tended to remove the color from the movements altogether as a way to highlight how people involved in counterculture have a “warped” perception of reality.

Jimmy Hendrix Outfit Detail 1970

When someone mentions the ‘60s, the classic psychedelic oranges, pinks, and blues come to mind. The ‘60s and the ‘70s represent an early fight against the status quo, its bright colors, unjustified margins, and classic collage styles on canvases and band posters designed to relieve the creative world of the cookie-cutter lifestyle. Everything had a wave and curve to it, the colors of change moving freely about their pages, challenging the notion that the everyday person had to fit neatly into the margins of a structured societal page. Take the 14-hour Technicolor Dream show at the Alexandria Palace, for example. The 1967 event went on all night as a “free speech benefit” full of live music from artists such as Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono. Even before the show started, police investigated the venue for alleged obscenity laws violations, so more artists kept signing up to play in solidarity with the raid. Mike McInnerney, the then-art editor for the International Times, designed posters for artists all the time and earned the title of one of the “designers of the revolution” by taking part in creating the distinctive poster art style in the ‘60s. Since none of the posters were left after the raid, people began ripping posters off bulletins and power poles for keepsakes after the show.

The ‘60s and ’70s were also associated with a second wave of feminism that focused on discrimination and equality. However, one distinctive characteristic of second-wave feminism was the exclusion of Black voices in the movement, so artists such as Faith Ringgold struggled to be recognized for astounding skill and contribution to the fine arts space. Ringgold spoke at events such as the “We Wanted a Revolution” symposium to discuss how the issues of inequitable feminism hindered her success early on, especially as she explored political themes in her paintings.

Make Love

“When I was in elementary school I used to see reproductions of Horace Pippin’s 1942 painting called John Brown Going to His Hanging in my textbooks. I didn't know Pippin was a black person. No one ever told me that. I was much, much older before I found out that there was at least one black artist in my history books. Only one. Now that didn't help me. That wasn't good enough for me. How come I didn't have that source of power? It is important. That's why I am a black artist. It is exactly why I say who I am,” Ringgold said in a statement on the representation of Black artists.

The early sparks of anti-war protests in the ‘60s and ‘70s are part of the reason why we celebrate Earth Day today. Most of the language surrounding the anti-war, counterculture movements focused on protecting the planet and the people inhabiting it. As the ‘60s came to an end, more and more protests highlighting the absence of regulation occurred in commercial and industrial factories. At the start of a fresh decade on April 22, 1970, the United States celebrated the first Earth Day to elevate messages of conservation and sustainability while promoting the importance of staying educated on environmental issues. With electronic innovations and the widespread popularity of hair spray on the rise, however, many of these messages tackling overconsumption and overproduction were cast into landfills.


Counterculture in the’80s diverged from early notions toward consumerism in favor of big hair, neon everything, and accessible electronics. As bell bottoms were ditched for ripped jeans and parachute pants, the art style changed from conceptual pieces to Neo-expressionism and pop art. Artists such as Keith Haring and Elizabeth Murray took the world by storm. Haring was a social activist and promoted human issues by creating art for AIDS awareness and even painting the Berlin Wall in 1986, three years before Germany would become unified again.

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear  Silence = Death, 1989

The ’80s is also when much more fear-based religious discourse became prevalent. One of the defining moments of counterculture in the ‘80s was just how widespread the fear mongering response toward shifts in music genres and pop culture as a whole. That response was reflected in art through muted color palettes. Bright and bold colors were so integral to these counterculture movements that art designed as counter protests took that color away from them in propaganda. Many comic-style artworks and posters from the ‘80s protesting counterculture took the bold neons out of the imagery and replaced it with black-and-white blocked figures. By reducing the appearances of people who engrossed themselves in counterculture lifestyles to a grayscale spectrum in their art, anti-counterculture artwork was left open to the interpretation that people who took part in challenging societal norms had “lost the light.”


Muting microphones became just as much of a practice to challenge counterculture in the ‘80s as muting colors was. For instance, MTV banned Queen’s music video for “Break Free '' in the United States less than halfway through the decade because they performed in drag. At this same time, parents played records backward to try and find even a syllable of “hidden satanic messages.” Many things associated with counterculture as far back as the ‘60s became branded with devil horns and pentagrams.

As much as we appreciate the iconic fashion and art from the decades, without the bold ethical and moral stances of past generations, we would not have the foundations to continue to fight for change today. The same messages of peace and love from the early generations of counterculture continue to echo in current political landscapes. Over half a century later, these messages of peace and prosperity continue to challenge the viewpoints of anyone who listens, urging them to ask questions about what it means to hold a belief and support a cause. The art from these times has become both a symbol of self-acceptance and a reminder of what it means to look into yourself for gratification instead of the larger society.


When challenging the status quo becomes mainstream, it’s easy to get sucked into an endless cycle of what it means to participate in social norms. Visual and performing artists have held the hammer responsible for breaking this cycle, and we have them to thank for keeping the masses grounded in what it means to boldly challenge the present morals and ethics—what it means for the People to question the foundations of conformity and make the world a better place.


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